Artist's framed view of the millennium

Art: Mary Cate-Carroll has seen the future, and it is us. Her `Landscapes from the Edge' present her vision.

November 29, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The end of the millennium doesn't frighten Mary Cate-Carroll even a little bit.

She's a deeply religious painter who likes to say she's gone to the edge of the millennium, looked beyond and brought back her own vision.

And that vision is now on display in a show of her work at the Montage Gallery of Federal Hill, at 925 S. Charles St. It's called "Landscapes from the Edge."

The pivotal image, literally, is a door. It hangs from the ceiling on wires, ambiguously, more or less in the center of the gallery. But whether it closes on the past or opens on the future is problematic.

"Basically," Cate-Carroll says, "I have crawled to the edge of the new millennium and looked over, and this is what I see. It's not the Y2K bug. And to me, it's, `What are you so worried about, people, look around right now.' "

"We're worried about this society falling apart?" she says. "Let it fall apart. I think we could do better!"

The door frames a painting called "Eroded Values." For Cate-Carroll, frames have become nearly as important as the oils they enclose. Built up in an accumulation of amazing stuff, like symbols in a dream, the frames comment on and counterpoint the themes in the paintings, an endless suite of variations.

The door as frame is relatively restrained for Cate-Carroll. Her oil "Dusk or Dawn" emerges narrowly from a frame encrusted with an archive of miniature warriors, animals, body parts, furniture, fish, whats-its and whatnots.

You view "Dusk or Dawn" as if you were looking through a slit window in a castle -- a road disappears into a sunrise or sunset, beneath a starry sky behind bare, tangled branches. A telephone pole tilts like a cross against the glowing horizon. These cross-like poles often appear in her paintings in groups of three, "a secular Golgotha," she says.

Mitch Angel, the proprietor of the Montage Gallery, had a hand in the genesis of "Eroded Values." For his shows he likes new paintings no one has yet seen.

"I hemmed and hawed," Cate-Carroll says. "Sometimes it takes me two years to do a painting."

But she had the door she'd bought at an antiques shop in Oella. She'd run the Mill River Gallery in the recycled factory building there until June. The door is a worn tattered blue with a corroded metal mail slot.

"It's beautiful, and I love it," she says. "So I went home, and I painted for a week straight on this. I hardly slept. So I said, `Gee, maybe I can do new work for this show. If I really just don't sleep.'

"So I slept very little. I got up at 2 o'clock in the morning and worked until 2 or 3 in the afternoon. Take a nap and then go again."

The idea was to create a cohesive body of work, Angel says.

The "Eroded Values" painting fills the place in the door where the window might be. You look out over a landscape rent and eroded to a city silhouetted on the horizon, perhaps aflame and belching black smoke, perhaps iridescent under black clouds as the sun goes down, a vision of hell or a spectacularly vivid sunset. Off-center in the foreground, a sheep stands between cracks in the earth, peering quizzically at the viewer.

"The sheep is my way of putting humanity in the painting," says Cate-Carroll. "The human soul. Ourselves."

Sheep occur often in her millennial paintings. And they carry a heavy load of religious symbolism, as in "The Lord is my shepherd "

Anna Weem, a writer and Cate-Carroll's friend, writes of the painting in the show's catalog: "Here we stand, at a Crossroad in Time. While all around, our metaphysical landscape crumbles and burns. The question remains what will we do."

Cate-Carroll answers: "The future is what we will make it. And we make the future now, depending on how we deal with the problems we have now. And we have problems enough."

She paints at her Finksburg home, where she lives with her husband, Charles Carroll, no relation to the Carrolls of Carrollton. She's been doing art for more than 20 years. She first studied drawing and painting at the Corcoran Museum School in Washington. She took her undergraduate degree at Mary Washington College in Virginia, then studied with Grace Hartigan at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. She received her M.F.A. in 1983, and taught for about 10 years. She's exhibited widely on the Eastern seaboard.

She's explored easel painting, collage, assemblage and mixed media works. In the Montage Gallery Millennium works, assemblage has been limited pretty much to the frames, although an occasional object turns up in her paintings, chairs especially, along with incised lines and words. On the door, "values" are truly eroded. The "L" has faded away: V-A- -U-E-S.

She's probably best known for her painting "American Liberty Upside Down," a family portrait with an outline for a missing child. A small door opens onto a fetus preserved in a glass jar. Cate-Carroll fiercely opposes abortion.

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